Big guns back

H.L. Hunley Senior Conservator Paul Mardikian and his team restored this cast-iron cannon from the sunken Confederate raider CSS Alabama, one of the most feared vessels during the Civil War. Mardikian's careful work has brought two of the big guns back to

Most people wouldn't worry much about damaging a couple of three-ton, cast-iron Civil War cannons.

But then, most people don't spend years meticulously nursing the lost artifacts of the Lost Cause back to pristine condition.

When that is your job, you worry about corrosion, dust, the oil from someone's hand — and pretty much everything else.

"I want them gone now," said Paul Mardikian, senior Hunley conservator at the Warren Lasch Conservation

Center. "But I hope to see them again someday."

One day, everyone in Charleston may see them — in the Hunley museum.

These cannons come from one of the few Civil War ships that rival the Hunley's fame, the CSS Alabama. For several years, they have sat in tanks beside the Hunley, unbeknownst to most of the sub's weekend visitors.

There, Mardikian and his team have gently scraped away several inches of hard-shell concretion from the 32-inch, smooth bore cannons. Then they soaked the guns in a chemical bath to leach out the salt that permeated the iron during a century under water.

In the midst of their work, they found a human jawbone stuck to one of the cannons — the first human remains ever found on the Alabama's wreckage.

"The guy must have gotten trapped under the cannon," Mardikian said.

The results of the conservation are amazing — you can read the manufacturer's name on both cannons. Even though they are different designs, both were cast in the same year, at the same Liverpool plant. The cannons even have their lock plates and sights on them, something you don't see on many big guns from the era.

The story of how the cannons made it from the English Channel to North Charleston is nearly as remarkable as Mardikian's restoration job.

The Confederate raider was one of the most notorious, and feared, vessels roaming the sea during the war. The Alabama was built in Liverpool in 1862 by British sympathizers and, when it was launched that summer, it quickly became the bane of the United States Navy.

Led by Capt. Raphael Semmes, the Alabama seized dozens of Union merchant ships, taking their cargo and burning them. It sank the USS Hatteras in the Gulf of Mexico in one of its many patrols around the world.

No one could touch the speedy Alabama, which could travel under sail or by steam, and no one ever fought back enough to kill any of its crew.

That changed in the summer of 1864, when the Alabama was in France for repairs. The USS Kearsarge caught the Alabama in the English Channel and sank it.

It was lost for 120 years.

After the historic ship was found off the coast of his native France in 1984, Mardikian spent months conserving the ship's wheel, its massive Blakely gun, even its ornate toilets.

So when two of the ship's cannons were raised eight years ago, the Navy decided Mardikian should restore them, too. And that's what he has done.

In appreciation for Mardikian's work, the Hunley project might be allowed to keep one of the cannons. The conservator said that will require them to build a climate-controlled tank, but Hunley officials say it would be worth it.

Randy Burbage, a member of the state Hunley Commission, said the cannon is a natural artifact for the yet-to-be-built Hunley museum.

"I think it's a perfect fit," Burbage said. "It will go well with the Southern Maritime collection, which includes Semmes' Naval Academy sword. It will be a great addition to the Hunley museum because we want it to be a full Southern Maritime museum."